Thursday, March 01, 2007

Words That Raise the Dead: Interview with Martin Espada

La Bloga is pleased to offer you our discussion with Martín Espada, whom Sandra Cisneros called "the Pablo Neruda of North American authors."

In his eighth collection of poems, Martín Espada celebrates the power of poetry itself. The Republic of Poetry is a place of odes and elegies, collective memory and hidden history, miraculous happenings and redemptive justice. Here poets return from the dead, visit in dreams, even rent a helicopter to drop poems on bookmarks. (from the publisher)

Espada was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1957. He has published thirteen books in all as a poet, essayist, editor and translator. His eighth collection of poems, The Republic of Poetry, was published by Norton in October, 2006. Of this new collection, Samuel Hazo writes: "Espada unites in these poems the fierce allegiances of Latin American poetry to freedom and glory with the democratic tradition of Whitman, and the result is a poetry of fire and passionate intelligence."

His last book, Alabanza: New and Selected Poems, 1982-2002 (Norton, 2003), received the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement and was named an American Library Association Notable Book of the Year. An earlier collection, Imagine the Angels of Bread (Norton, 1996), won an American Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Other books of poetry include A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen (Norton, 2000), City of Coughing and Dead Radiators (Norton, 1993), and Rebellion is the Circle of a Lover’s Hands (Curbstone, 1990).

He has received numerous awards and fellowships, including the Robert Creeley Award, the Antonia Pantoja Award, an Independent Publisher Book Award, a Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award, the Charity Randall Citation, the Paterson Poetry Prize, the PEN/Revson Fellowship and two NEA Fellowships. He recently received a 2006 John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship.

His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Harper’s, The Nation, and The Best American Poetry. He has also published a collection of essays, Zapata’s Disciple (South End, 1998); edited two anthologies, Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination from Curbstone Press (Curbstone, 1994) and El Coro: A Chorus of Latino and Latina Poetry (University of Massachusetts, 1997); and released an audiobook of poetry on CD, called Now the Dead will Dance the Mambo (Leapfrog, 2004).

Much of his poetry arises from his Puerto Rican heritage and his work experiences, ranging from bouncer to tenant lawyer. Espada is a professor in the Department of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he teaches creative writing and the work of Pablo Neruda.

In next week's column, I'll review The Republic of Poetry and let you in on exactly why the work of Martín Espada is an object lesson in writing.


Mainstream American history is, more often than not, a kind of forced amnesia. Do you agree/disagree? What to you think the role of the poet is regarding this? Can you talk about the significance of the title, The Republic of Poetry, in this vein?

The American history taught and published in this country all too often resembles a consensus on what to forget. This is especially true when it comes to Latinos, Latin America, and their history. I believe that a poet can be a historian when the need is there.

There is a tradition of poet as historian in Latin America. Pablo Neruda’s Canto General is a history of Latin America in verse, magnificent and sweeping in scale. Ernesto Cardenal wrote epic poems about the history of Nicaragua, the Somoza dynasty and the rise of Sandino, the invasion of William Walker. This is not the official history. This is hidden history, history from below, a poet’s history. Likewise, in The Republic of Poetry I write about the coup in Chile, struggle for democracy in that country, and the dynamic presence of poetry in the transition of democracy. The Republic of Poetry is, on the most literal level, a reference to Chile, but the Republic of Poetry is everywhere people write and speak and sing their hidden or forgotten history.

What, in your opinion, is the importance of revisiting the Chilean overthrow, particularly, given current U.S. foreign policy?

Most people in the U.S. never knew what happened in Chile. Others knew and forgot. It’s been more than thirty years, since September 11th, 1973, “the first 9/11.” We never hear about Nixon, Kissinger, and the CIA as co-conspirators in the overthrow of a democratically elected president—Salvador Allende—in Chile. We never hear about their complicity in the murder of more than 3000 people, the torture and imprisonment of thousands more. Kissinger is still hailed as a hero by the fawning media in this country. Meanwhile, no one mentions Victor Jara, the great singer and songwriter executed by the Chilean military in the days following the coup.

There are, of course, parallels with current U.S. foreign policy. As U.S. citizens, too many of us are detached and distant from the suffering our government causes half a world away, and we pay for it with our tax dollars. There are other parallels as well. The current debate over the practice of torture and arbitrary imprisonment in the name of security, illusory as it is, has eerie echoes of the Chilean coup and the Pinochet dictatorship. Today we stand by and allow our civil liberties to be eroded and delude ourselves with a mantra: It can’t happen here. Keep in mind that Chile had a long tradition of democracy before the coup. It couldn’t happen there, either. We have much to learn from Chile in its transition from dictatorship to democracy, their arc of creation, destruction and redemption.

You held many different jobs along the way. How do you think that's influenced how you look at the world, as well as the role of the poet/writer. In the same vein, do you think there is a working class aesthetic? If so, how would you define it and describe its importance?

It’s true I’ve held many jobs along the way. I was a bouncer in a bar; I was a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman; I was a janitor at Sears; I was a gas-station attendant; I was a pizza cook and dishwasher. I even worked in a primate lab, taking care of baby monkeys. I’m the only poet you’ll ever meet who has been bitten by a monkey. These work experiences have had a profound impact on my poetry, both in terms of subject matter and perspective. For many years, I was a poet-spy. I was invisible, like many working class people. People would say or do absolutely anything right in front of me, since I wasn’t really there. And I would write it all down.

I would say that there is definitely a working-class aesthetic. (To see what I mean, check out the anthology called American Working Class Literature, edited by Coles and Zandy for Oxford University Press.) As the term implies, working-class poets write about work and they write about class, as physical, emotional and intellectual landscapes. There is protest, but there is also pride in the job well-done; there is humiliation, but there is also dignity; there is anger, but there is also humor, all from the perspective of those who create and produce, but who do not control the system of creation and production. They speak from experience, and speak for the experiences of others who have been silenced or who silence themselves. Working-class poets make the invisible visible. A century ago there were Wobbly bards, poets and songwriters like Joe Hill and Ralph Chaplin; in the 1970s we saw the emergence of Chicano bards writing from the farmworker experience, such as Gary Soto and Tino Villanueva; now the bards will come from the immigrants and their children who increasingly make up new working class in this country today.

A poet labors over a message until it feels just right, then sends the words out to be read, understood, misunderstood, distorted, cavorted with. Who's responsible for how a poem means, the reader or the writer? A related question: To whom does a poem belong, the reader or the writer?

I would say that the writer is primarily responsible for “how a poem means.” As a poet, I have a responsibility to communicate. As I’ve said elsewhere, how could I know what I know and not tell what I know? Personally, I strive for clarity and concreteness, though I don’t feel the need to sacrifice complexity in the process. I rely on the image, the five senses on paper, to drive the narrative. I believe, as Julio Marzan has said, that the poem must be portable. It must be able to travel without the poet. I can’t be there to read the poem aloud to everyone, to explain it, to answer questions about it. The poem must be able to stand on its own, independently, and that’s my job.

Having said that, I would also say that once the poem leaves me and takes flight, it belongs to the reader. I want my poems to be useful. I’m gratified when my poems go where I can’t go, to weddings or funerals, to prison, to other countries in other languages. (I’ve been translated into Turkish!) Sometimes readers let me know, in dramatic ways, that the poems belong to them. I met a young journalist at a reading in New York who had a quote from “Imagine the Angels of Bread” tattooed on his leg.

It's obvious that Neruda's work is bedrock for you. Who are other writers that have significantly influenced you?

Neruda is part of a great tradition going back to Whitman. I’m part of that tradition too. Whitman has significantly influenced me, as have others in Whitman’s lineage: Hughes, Sandburg, Masters, Ginsberg, Cardenal. I should also cite the Puerto Rican poet Clemente Soto Velez. He spent six years in prison for his role in the Puerto Rican independence movement, and later mentored generations of writers and artists in the community, myself included. My wife and I named our son after him.

How has being a father and husband influenced your life as a poet and vice versa?

Being a father and husband have certainly influenced my life as a poet, as any important and intimate relationships would. Being a husband and father gives me a far greater stake in a more just world, and this is reflected in my work.

I’ve written many poems about them. There is a poem about my son’s birth, and another about my wife’s stroke. For them this is a mixed blessing, as anyone who has been the subject of such a poem can attest. My life as a poet, doing readings and workshops on the road, also takes me away from my family. The unfortunate truth is that people pay me to go away.

What's something you'd like your readership to know about you that isn't in the official bio?

I am the inventor of the all-pork diet.

(photo credit: Paul Shoul)


Admission is free but reservations are required.

March 15: Reading, 6 PM
Poetry Off the Shelf
sponsored by the Poetry Foundation
Newberry Library
60 W. Walton Street
Chicago, IL
Contact: Steve Young
(312) 787-7070

March 16: Reading, 8 PM
English Language and Literature Conference
St. Francis University
500 Wilcox Street
Moser Performing Arts Center Auditorium
Joliet, IL
Contact: Marcia Marzec
(800) 735-7500

March 17: Plenary, 9 AM

English Language and Literature Conference
St. Francis University
500 Wilcox Street
Moser Performing Arts Center Auditorium
Joliet, IL
Contact: Marcia Marzec
(800) 735-7500

interview: Lisa Alvarado


Anonymous said...

This is a great interview, Lisa. Espada reveals much, and gives us much to ponder.

I'd love to read more of his thoughts: about Abelardo Delgado, Ricardo Sanchez, yes, and especially about Neruda. Any chance of that?

msedano said...

i second the great interview part. i want to know when the vato's coming to califas. chicago may be hog butcher to the world, but out here we know how to make some mean carnitas.

Lisa Alvarado said...

I would LOVE to have another conversation with Martin. I think there's so much more to talk about, especially the idea of working-class aesthetics.

And Michael, for once we get the celebrities in Aztlan del Norte!